Lucky Chances, a decade-old article about my first tourney cash

[Yesterday, for the first time in years, I reread this piece I wrote about my first tourney cash (and WIN) back in the Bay Area in 2004, and found it fun to go back and see how much of what I think/know about poker has changed, and also how much has stayed pretty much the same. I was filling in for Stephen Elliot in his weekly McSweeney’s “Poker Report” column at the time. I’ve interjected a couple of notes. It was a damn fun adventure, hope you think so too, and it illustrates what’s become my mantra about tournament poker: luck counts.]


The Poker Report: Lucky/Chances
March 17, 2004

So my dad was in town last week, and while he’s not a rich dad, he’s not a poor one either(This was back in the day when the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” books were big)—he’s the kind of dad who can afford to stake his son and himself eighty bucks apiece to play in the Monday 10:30 a.m. no-limit hold ’em tournament at Lucky Chances in Colma, CA, famed city of cemeteries, knowing full well that not a dime of that $160 is likely to see the dark of his wallet ever again.

My dad’s one of those guys who’s beaten the tar out of his local kitchen game for thirty years (or so he tells me) but hasn’t played much in casinos and had never played in a tournament before. I’d played in three tourneys, most recently about six months ago, toward the end of my phase that so many of us wannabe poker stars have had these past couple of years where we’ve watched too much poker TV and seen too many Chris Moneymakers and Jim McManuses and Robert Varkonyis—”regular” guys who make it to the final table or even win the Big One—and so we buy our Turbo Tournament Poker software (remember that, kids?) and all those insanely expensive books and we read and reread and memorize and then rewatch the TV stuff (because we taped it, of course) so that when we sit down at that final table with Jesus Ferguson as we know we someday will, we’ll know just what it means when he tugs at his beard just so. I went through that phase and was caught up in it more than some because I got to go to Vegas and look over the shoulder of my friend Annie who’s one of those poker people you see on the poker TV. But I hadn’t played a tournament or really much poker at all in six months after realizing it was an education I couldn’t even begin to afford and didn’t have the time or even the interest to actively pursue. Then Dad came to town, and the phoenix of my broken poker dreams lifted it’s charred beak once more.

Tournaments work like this: in effect, you pay eighty bucks and you get $2,500 in what amounts to play money chips that could almost conceivably earn you real money later on. You play with those chips until you run out. And you do run out. That is, everyone runs out but one guy, and that guy (and at Lucky Chances, it is 99+ percent “guy”) wins the biggest piece of the real money. When I played last year, there were 50-70 entrants each time. A lot of middle-aged Asian and white men who play way too much poker. You can see it in their glazed eyes and paunchy bodies, in their haphazard clothes, in their left-hand ring fingers where there’s still a tan line where a ring used to be but no more because the car got repo-ed again and one mortgage became two and then they lost the house altogether, all for the love/obsession of playing a card game, of gambling. It was Dad, me, those guys and a few baseball-capped, wraparound-shaded youngsters with stars in their eyes where the glaze had yet to form.

The three times I played previously, twice I placed in the mid-twenties—not bad for a beginner, I thought—and once I came in eleventh, one spot out of the final table and the money, which is paid in sharply increasing increments to the top ten finishers.

Pop and I rolled into the club at 9:30 and signed up. I showed him to his table, gave him the basic rundown. By 10:30 start time, there were a whopping 110 players signed up and seated at eleven tables. The floor man called out “Dealers, shuffle up and deal” and the game was on. My reasonable hope was that both of us would last long enough to feel good about ourselves, have story or two to tell, and that maybe, just maybe, my dad would get a chance to see that I wasn’t the player he knew when we last played: a maniacal eleven-year old punk at my grandparents’ condo in Ft. Lauderdale who wanted to play “Black Mariah” (it’s a wacky seven-card stud game, don’t ask) every hand and would bet like a lunatic and lose all his pennies but not really because Grandma Bea would keep sneaking him more whenever he ran out. I wanted my father to see that I was a grown man, a solid player. I’ve watched too many cheesy movies. Of course, my wilder fantasies were a bit more involved and ranged from one or the other of us making the final table to both of us making it to the two of us heads-up in an epic Oedipal showdown.

I started off well, getting no cards and patiently folding hand after hand. Pretty soon, though, I found myself in the big blind and nobody raised and I snuck in a betwith 10-8 offsuit. The flop came A-10-6, with no betters, a terrific hand to lose a lot of money on when you’re sitting with second pair and some smartass with a pocket ace is setting a trap. A king came on the turn, everyone checked to me and I made a fairly substantial bet, trying my best to represent a pair of kings. Everyone sensibly folded and I was feeling pretty good about myself—first hand played, first hand won, and on a semi-bluff to boot. Before the first break, I won another hand, with some actual cards this time.

At the first break, I checked in with the old man; we were both doing well. At the second, the Berger clan was still hanging tough. By the fifth round, we were both still alive but the competition had only dropped to seventy-some, still a long way to go. But then, all at once, players started dropping in bunches and before we knew it we were in the top 35. The next time tables were consolidated, I was top dog at mine and my dad was moved in two seats to my left to fill the spot of a solid player who had just gone all in and had his pocket aces busted by king-8 off, giving him something almost as good as a win, a great bad-beat story.

The deal went a few times around the table, Pop and I folding like the rocks we are. The numbers dwindled, now down to the mid-twenties. Then I was dealt QJ offsuit in the big blind. My dad and another guy limped in and I let it ride. The flop came A-K-10 rainbow and there I was, first to act with the nut straight. Up until that point I was just dreaming of making the final table and was playing more and more like what’s sometimes called a farmer—a patient, passive player who waits for a solid hand and then plays it solidly but who rarely gets to final tables because of lack of aggression or willingness to take risks. But the blinds and antes (which progress throughout the tournament) were getting monstrous, and it was starting to look like I might indeed get to that last table but with almost no chips to play with. So I figured it was time to check-raise for the first time all day. I checked, and, tragically, sublimely, Mark Berger went all-in with what I later would learn was an ace to match the one on the table. The other guy folded, and I called and knocked my own dear father out of the tournament. We both laughed, smiled, shook hands, and then he joined the growing crowd of railbirds.

Suddenly I was sitting with a pretty nice stack and eighteen players left. Eighteen dropped quickly to thirteen but then seemed to just freeze there forever as I folded and folded and folded. I even folded pocket nines in pretty late position, and if you knew anything about my superstition/obsession with the number nine, you’d be more impressed than I’m sure you already are. And still there were thirteen of us and the blinds and antes went up again and my pile kept getting smaller, and then, with six players left at my table and a still medium sized stack in front of me, I was dealt QJ again, this time on the button. A short stack went all in, and a shorter stack called, and I was stuck with a big, unwelcome decision. If I called and won, I’d go to the final table with a huge stack – if I lost, I’d be the short stack at the table. But the two players already in had been pretty steady all day, so they either had high pocket pairs or ace-something, making my QJ very foldable. The odds of winning were against me but the pot odds were incredibly juicy. I took several deep breaths, looked at my pretty picture cards, then at all those chips in the middle, then my cards again (thinking maybe they’d turned into twins) and decided that, dammit, I was going to that final table, and then mucked. (Ten years, later, I’m thinking, you were thinking of calling two all-ins with QJ off!?!) I think it was my best play of the day; I would’ve thought so even if quad aces hadn’t ended up winning the hand. And then, just like that, at the other table, two players went belly-up, the floor manager called a break, and we were down to ten and on to the final table.

During the break, Dad seemed more thrilled than I was, advised me to loosen up, get a little more aggressive, and then set himself up on the rail after recruiting me a little rooting section that consisted of himself and a couple of linebacker-huge, grinning 25-year old Samoan-American guys wearing gold chains and Niners jackets. I felt strangely calm.

I was in about middle chip position as the final table began and decided to stay stonelike for a while—with each player that folded I’d make more money, and at that point, that was my plan, to sit tight for some cards and move up that payout ladder. Luckily, the first five hands or so I got nothing, and quickly three of the final ten were gone. Then things started to happen in a hurry. I’m sorry to say the adrenaline simply wiped out any memory of my actual hands, but I quickly started getting pretty nice cards, and I’m pretty sure I won three of four hands in rapid succession for medium to substantial pots. We were now down to four. My opponents were a young soft-spoken guy who I later learned was an orchestral conductor for a local girls’ chorus of some repute; a friendly, middle-aged jokester poker dealer named Walter; and a tricky player who’d been sitting to my left all day who I’m almost positive pretended not to speak English in order to mess with his opponents (space prohibits further elaboration) and who I’d been in some big hands with and really wanted to beat the crap out of. We proceeded. I beat my nemesis out of a hand that he was weakly bluffing on, then he beat me out of one when he acted the exact same way he did with the transparent bluff but then, smiling mutely, turned over pocket queens. Walter went bust, and then we were three, with me the overwhelming chip leader.

Then, all at once, adrenalized focus gave in to panic and dread as I realized I was in way over my head. Playing short-handed is a very different game from playing at a full table. It requires experience that I have absolutely none of outside of a simulated computer version. It requires spot statistical analysis that I am just not built for. It requires cojones as big as bowling balls. As the number of players gets smaller, the range of hands you should play gets correspondingly larger, and I suddenly lacked all confidence in knowing what those hands could possibly be. I was sitting pretty, with a pretty substantial chip lead, but felt like I was ready to crumble at any moment, to start giving it all back to the real players who deserved to win.

Then soft-spoken conductor guy turned to me and said the most beautiful, unexpected words: “You wanna make a deal?” This often happens in tournaments, but I had forgotten all about it. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, the difference between the payouts for first, second, and third is great enough, and the time it might take to finish is long enough that it’s often worth just splitting the winnings proportional to chip count. We looked over to the silent sharpie, who, in third place by a ton, seemed to understand the word “deal” quite well and nodded and smiled. And so we all agreed and the floor manager worked out the details of the cut and my little fanbase was clapping, people were shaking my hand, and the floor man was handing me a crisp pile of seventeen hundred-dollar bills while his cohort asked me how to spell my name and told me to smile for the camera. I smiled, big, the flash flashed, and that was that. I had won. I had won a no-limit hold ’em tournament, with my dad there rooting me on. Over a fancy steak dinner, we giddily recounted the day, and for once in my nearly twenty-year adult life of going out to meals with him, I eagerly picked up the tab.

Once the elation faded (and don’t get me wrong, a week later, it’s not gone yet, just faded a bit) the most important thing I learned and that the TV and the books and the software don’t want you to think about is that, especially in tournaments, where pros can’t just go buy more chips to come back and smack the dead-money rookie back down after a bad beat or two, luck is a huge factor. And that’s why a Moneymaker will sometimes get to the final table of a tournament, maybe even win the damn thing, once. (You may notice you usually don’t even see those guys at a final table a second time.) But people like T. J. Cloutier, Chris Fergussen, Doyle Brunson, and, yes, Annie Duke, that top one-tenth of one percent of one percent, are the geniuses, the rocket brain surgeons. They have the discipline and incredibly even keels, the math brains, the game theory brains, the psychological insight, the intimidation factor, and a few of them (John Hennigan, I’m told), well, some call them psychic—they just seem to always know what cards you have. The rest of us just fight for our little pieces of the middle and hope for some luck. That’s why there’s no casino called “Psychological Acumen and Statistical Reasoning.”

While I didn’t get the best cards on earth that day (Monday, March 8, 2004, by the way)—never had a pair of pocket aces or kings dealt to me, never rivered a flush or a full house or even a set—I did get dealt ace-king four times, and each time it came through, large. I played just fine, if a bit too passive, until I was the big leader, and I did properly push my opponents around with my stack once I was that leader, but the cards supported me every time. Solid play, a good chunk of luck and not a single bad beat. I can live with that. Heck, I can retire with that—maybe. Yeah, right

Dad/fandom – Big Guns & Regular Joes – WELCOME! (Intro., pt. 3 of 3)

Five-point-five – Fan/Dad

While my mom and her five-years-gone-iversary were more on my mind when I thought of this blog, my father is fundamental to my fandom in general and to my love of poker. I grew up sneaking peeks at (and wishing I could play in) his weekly game with colleagues. When I finally did get to play with him and his friends, about a decade ago, I don’t think any of them realized what an honor it was. My pops also taught me most of what I know about adoring/despising athletes for no particular reason beyond what we glean from games on TV. In fact, one of our longest running arguments is about Patrick Ewing, whom I love and think never got the supporting cast he deserved, while my father can’t stand Ewing and blames him and his “little hands” for over a decade of Knicks woes. He and I have also watched poker on TV together since—well, I know it started well before some 24-year-old punk named Hellmuth took the Main event from Johnny Chan back in ’89. And not only was Mark Berger there when I won my first MTT at Lucky Chances (outside San Francisco), but I even busted him out of the tourney. Looking back at a short piece I wrote for McSweeney’s online about that day, I can’t believe it was only nine years ago – it feels like a zillion poker lifetimes ago.


Coupla riverboat gamblers?

Six – Big Guns, Regular Joes

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been blessed (as my friend Hearty White would put it) to know a few people close to the game, and through them, now and then I’ve been able to indulge my fandom from a suffocating proximity. On TV, for more than a decade, I’ve watched each year’s poker Icarus (more than any other pursuit I’ve ever seen, that luck factor leads to meteoric rises and flame-outs) over and over, trying to figure out why on earth I’m rooting for some of these guys (and it nearly is all guys, white guys), against others, and vacillating on a couple more.

I’ve sat at felt-covered tables trying to trick other people out of their money, and been thrilled when I’ve succeeded. I’ve never rooted for people like these before, much less wanted to be one of the “best” of them: the rich, debauched, and clever, who thrive more or less stealing from those less rich, debauched, and clever. In fact, in all my life outside of this game, I’ve rooted and often worked for those without advantages of wealth or genetics or dumb luck, to get their fair share.

Poker geeks (often a very different group from those who are actually any good at the game) tend to root for established pros, as if pros deserve to win. Someone who plays with his pals in the garage once a month and catches a few episodes on ESPN now and then might well root for the nice-guy trucker on the roll of a lifetime, but the pros and the geeks definitely don’t, although perhaps they should.

The ultimate example of the regular-Joe-on-a-tear that poker insiders were rooting hard against (but clearly shouldn’t have been – he spawned the exponential influx of money and players to the game over the next decade) is Chris Moneymaker. The ultimate crushing of the Main-Event dream of an exalted pro came right before the final table of that 2003 WSOP, when Moneymaker eliminated the player nearly unanimously called the greatest poker player in the history of the game, Phil Ivey, in 10th place (out of a mere 893). In ’03 , the geeks were disgusted by Moneymaker’s loose calls and suck-outs. And they were crushed by Ivey’s loss. But that loss, and Moneymaker’s win, even though it probably means Ivey will never have another chance at that ultimate prize, has meant millions and millions of dollars to him and other pros. For our first video segment, here’s that legendary ’03 hand,

Back then, I too was crushed by Ivey’s demise, and hated the seeming donk/cracker who took him down. In fact, though, while no one would ever mistake Moneymaker for a poker genius, and he hasn’t had much success on the felt since that incredible run, his decisions were sound more often than not, and his play improved markedly as the tournament progressed – he absolutely rose to his moment. (see that Grantland history for more on that – it’s a great read for even the most cursory fan).

Until this year, I too, tended – as I thought myself more and more sophisticated about the game, if not necessarily successful at it – to root for a big gun to take the Big One. This year, though, that started to shift for me, as I found myself rooting for Nebraska farmer Phil Mader, a player who was clearly an amateur (although not nearly the rube ESPN made him out to be, with several five-figure cashes to his name, including 453rd Main Event in 2009 for $25k).

Besides cliquey insider-ness, the reason the poker community roots for pros is that the pros grind it out every day – they suffer for the game, so they deserve to win. Grinders and their fanboys feel it’s somehow unfair that the odds against them have risen as more and more “donks” (unskilled amateurs) take their shot at the big one. The flaw in this logic is that these pros are often an arrogant bunch of punks (strictly objectively speaking) who already make damn good money sitting around feeding on fish (amateurs, tourists . . .) at cash tables, and besides, what’s more exciting than a farmer from Nebraska having a life-changing experience, and winning a life-altering amount of money?

The chance of any of the top pros making the final table of the Main Event in their lifetimes is thousands and thousands to one, against. Multi-table Tournament (MTT) poker, is, many argue, as much as 90% luck. But, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design, and a winning lifetime percentage (or, as the more mathy poker geeks put it, ROI, return on investement)  comes from honing that remaining 10% (logic, math, memory, focus, psychology, endurance, discipline, White Magic) as finely as possible, to combine with great luck at perfect moments.

Up against 6,000+ opponents, one week a year, that 10% skill (or even if it’s 20, or even 30%) isn’t going to get even the best of the best to that final table, not in one person’s lifetime, no matter how good he or she is, not without a whole lotta luck to boot. Hellmuth, the all-time leading WSOP bracelet leader, is infamous for saying, “If it weren’t for luck I’d win them all.” But if it weren’t for the, as poker players like to say, sick luck skill and modest skill a Georgia accountant brought to the table ten years ago, the Hellmuths of the world wouldn’t have a fraction of the cash they have in the bank now, and certainly not even a tiny fraction of the media attention that they, and he in particular, so crave.

Seven – Welcome!

The November Nine starts four weeks from this past Monday, and there’s a lot to catch you up on, starting with the first fourteen TV episodes. My crispy-clear iphone-camera recordings of and commentary on a hand or two per episode will begin next post. I’ll be looking at this year’s Cinderellas, the legends, and the quirky, faux real-time nature of the coverage itself. And eventually, we’ll follow Player X on his potentially career-making run.

This isn’t going to be a pro-gambling blog. Nor is it an anti-gambling one, a story of recovery, an addict’s nostalgia trip. I will cover some obsession and regret – as a Foxwoods tourney grinder I’ve gotten to know a little put it, after an awful beat knocked him out of a tourney we were playing: “That’s the cruise we signed on for.” A few years, back, a long-time Gamblers Anonymous member (is “member” the term? ) and friend, said to me, about my teaching and tutoring and nonprofit work, “See, isn’t this just better, more satisfying, than poker?” The question, as he saw it, was rhetorical. But a straight yes was definitely not my answer, and it never will be. They both satisfy, and frustrate, in utterly different ways. And while I have opinions on gambling in general, the legalization of online poker, the growth of casinos, as I’m sure you do too, that’s not why I’m here.

This is a blog for people who love poker – who play, watch and fantasize poker and/or follow professional poker but aren’t looking for wise-ass twenty-something strategy tips and are sick of Nate Silver making you feel stupid. I kid, of course, Silver is great. If he’s such a mad genius, though, why doesn’t he play and crush poker tournaments? We’ll get to that, but it definitely has something to do with it being a lousy way to invest your money.

But this is also a blog for those who are just kind of curious. It’s about how poker culture has infiltrated pop culture. It’s for people who are interested in digging around to figure out why they are obsessed with poker, or why others of us are to the extent that we’ll not just sit at a table playing cards with strangers for hours and hours and hours on end, we’ll watch others do so on television. (“Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” the saying goes).

I hope you enjoy it. I’m awfully excited, myself!

(next: The 2013 Main Event!)